3 Rules, not 4. Maybe just 2 rules.

On several of the blogs I read, people often refer to the “4 rules of gun safety” and quote the rules defined by Jeff Cooper of Gunsite. They are

  1. All guns are always loaded!
  2. Never let the muzzle cover anything you are not willing to destroy!
  3. Keep your finger off the trigger until your sights are on target!
  4. Always be sure of your target!

The NRA has a better set of rules, which are

  1. ALWAYS keep the gun pointed in a safe direction
  2. ALWAYS keep your finger off the trigger until ready to shoot
  3. ALWAYS keep the gun unloaded until ready to use

Why are the NRA rules better? The NRA rules are direct instructions for people to follow, stated as positive absolutes.  They tell you what you _should_ do, in priority order, no less.  That’s why the first rule about “safe direction” is first.  If you screw up and violate NRA rules 2 and 3, if you obeyed rule 1, nothing of consequence, except for your pride, is damaged or destroyed.  When I teach NRA Rule 1, I go into detail about what “safe direction” actually means, because my observation is that a lot of gun owners fail to obey NRA Rule #1 because they don’t understand the word “ALWAYS” and they don’t understand “safe direction”.

In order for a direction to be safe you have to know what’s along the path your bullet will travel, and where it will stop.  That requires more thought than “up in the air” or “down at the ground” or “toward that wall”.  Off the range what you really have to do is determine the safest available direction, and that can change as people, animals and vehicles are in motion.

Cooper’s rule #1 “All guns are always loaded”  sounds good in a vague way, but says nothing.  Is it direction to always keep my gun loaded? or direction to handle my gun as if it were loaded? If it’s the latter, what’s the first thing I should do, if I”m going to handle my gun as if it were loaded?  That would be… ALWAYS point it in a safe direction which is NRA Rule #1.  So Cooper’s Rule #1 says nothing explicitly useful and can be scratched off the list.

Cooper’s rule #2 is “Never let the muzzle cover anything you are not willing to destroy” – which is a negative way of saying “ALWAYS keep the gun pointed in a safe direction”.  The adult learning people claim that you should always teach what you want students to do, not the opposite, so I’ll go with the NRA’s version.

Cooper’s rule #3 is “Keep your finger off the trigger until your sights are on target!” which is basically the same as NRA Rule #2 “ALWAYS keep your finger off the trigger until ready to shoot”. Again, I like the NRA’s rule better, because I do not always need my sights on target to shoot – such as in a retention or extreme close quarters situation. I just need to be ready for the gun to fire.

Cooper rule #4 is “Always be sure of your target!” which repeats the information in Cooper’s Rule #2 and NRA Rule #1.   If you weren’t sure of your target when you followed NRA rule #1 and pointed your gun in a safe direction, then the direction wasn’t safe, was it? Either you understand what a safe direction is, and you continually adjust your muzzle direction as needed, or you don’t, in which case you need to put the gun down until you learn what a safe direction is.  You should have been “sure of your target” back at rule #1 or at Cooper’s rule #2.

NRA Rule #3 is “ALWAYS keep the gun unloaded until ready to use.”.  Do we need this rule?  If we follow NRA Rules 1 and 2, or Cooper rules 2, 3 and 4, at all times, guns will always be pointed in safe directions with fingers off triggers, so there won’t be any negligent discharges.  I tell my students there are two categories of guns: those you are “using” for self-defense, whether they be readily accessible at home or “on or about your person” and all those other guns you have for other reasons: recreation, competition, hunting, collecting, etc.  Keeping all those non-self-defense guns unloaded causes no harm, and may prevent someone incapable of following the first 2 NRA rules from having a negligent discharge.

Cooper supposedly put “All Guns are Always Loaded” as his rule #1 because the #1 mistake people make handling guns is to violate all the other rules under the excuse that “it’s unloaded”. Cooper’s solution was to add a rule and place it first to reinforce that point.  I suggest that perhaps an alternative solution is to just use 2 rules – muzzle and trigger, because there are still gun owners out there (nevermind TV actors and actresses, and anti-gun politicians) who find it hard to follow 3 rules, much less 4, all the time.